Description of community psychology, adapted from the book Psychology in the Real World: Community-based groupwork

The ideas and interventions that underpin community psychology have often been inspired by the work of activists overseas, particularly in the Americas, for example the liberation social psychology theories and practices of Ignacio Martín-Baró. Perhaps because ideologically it encompasses a broad church of ideas, community psychology is not easy to define. In many ways it sits very much on the margin of mainstream psychology. However, its practices and ideas have become increasingly discussed at conferences and on training courses over the past decade, and in the UK there is community psychology section of the British Psychological Society and a discussion list with over 200 members.

In the UK community psychology has come to encompass many of the following ideas:

  • Placing people in their social contexts, focusing analysis and interventions on the social causes of distress and correcting the individualistic bias in psychology
  • Learning from and working collaboratively alongside (rather than doing things to) others
  • Analysing the impacts of power and disempowerment
  • Questioning whose interests are served by various theories, policies and practices
  • Focusing help on people in society who have been marginalised and oppressed
  • Creating and nurturing self-supporting systems or communities
  • Resisting oppression, silencing and social injustice
  • Sharing ideas, valuing diversity of knowledge and promoting social change
  • Engaging in participatory and action research that takes its lead from others and encompasses qualitative methods (rather than research that tests theories devised by experts.)

Psychology in the Real World ventures were not consciously set up with such a coherent list of aims at their onset, but they have come to incorporate such ideas not least because, as the people involved (both members and facilitators) have reflected on what has been discussed on the courses, they have come to see such things as important. As Augusto Boal discovered when practising the
Theatre of the Oppressed around the world, the cops are not as violent in Europe as in many South American countries, but the ‘cops in our head’ are often so oppressive that comparatively large numbers of people commit suicide and community interventions are needed just as much in socially fragmented Western countries as in other parts of the world.

The questioning approach that runs through all Psychology in the Real World and community psychology ventures can be seen as revolutionary by people in positions of power who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Whilst Joaquim Coimbra and Isabel Menezes have described community psychology as ‘the craft of making politics by other means’, others have wanted to avoid being labelled ‘political’ due to associations that go with such labels.

As the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara said: ‘When

I give food to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask

why the poor have no food they call me a communist.’

Community activitists have existed long before the concept of community psychology. For example, the Anarcho-CinderPunk movement, centred in Hulme, Manchester, in the early 1990s combined roads protest, gorrilla gardening, happenings with bands such as 15% Pus and ProudMadscape, projections on unwanted skyscrapers (including a version of 'V is for Velcro’, a list of words at random all beginning with V), community policing based on anarchism rather than exsting law, freecycled food, psychogeography walk and talks, and hip hop slam poetry. Psychologists have been slow, and often reluctant, to align themselves with such movements, despite the obvious potential for personal and community change through such activism.

Whilst we are sold the idea that Western medicine is at the cutting edge of treatments mental health problems, comparative studies have for a long time revealed that countries where people are not admitted into specialist centres, automatically medicated or given therapies by experts but instead remain in supportive communities have better outcomes even for diagnoses such as schizophrenia. For example, Jablensky et al’s WHO study revealed significantly better prognoses for people diagnosed with schizophrenia in India and Nigeria compared to Western countries. It seems that there may be more to learn from studying the kinds of communities that enable people to recover from serious breakdowns than from listening to drug reps who ply professionals with free food and present research conducted by companies who have a pecuniary interest in obtaining outcomes that show their products in the best possible light.